Today I am off to the General Synod of the Church of England in York, to talk at a meeting about church schools and community benefit.
With most of the focus on women bishops (I did a French radio interview on that myself yesterday, examining the issues and making the case for change) it is unlikely that we will have a huge turnout at the Accord Coalition meeting. But the correspondence I get and the interaction we have with people in the churches indicates that while Government and those who set Church policy may have a settled mind on the question of religion in education, parents, pupils and local people want something better than choice determined from on high. They are right.
The Accord Coalition brings people from all kinds of backgrounds together to work for reforms to ensure that all our publicly funded schools are as open as possible to people from different backgrounds and traditions. That means, obviously (though sadly it isn't obvious to some) ending selection and discrimination on the basis of religion or belief.
But in order to change hearts and minds (and ultimately votes and policies) it is necessary not just to say what's wrong with what we have, but to set out a different vision. In fact, I'd put it much more strongly than that. Without a new and energising vision people do not see how things could be better and therefore tend to support the status quo, even if they have qualms about it.
In particular, for schools with a Christian foundation or support, we need a much bigger and more hospitable understanding of what 'Christian ethos' could be about. At present, the term is used largely to defend the church tribe and its interests and to use 'religion' as a category to define practice . But that seriously misrepresents what the church and the Gospel are about.
Rightly understood, the church isn't a club for religious people (or any other kind of in-group). It's an experimental zone for discovering new ways of living together based on things like peacemaking, sharing, hospitality, forgiveness, restorative justice and special concern for those excluded by society. Similarly, though entry into the church is through a particular kind of commitment to following Jesus Christ, its boundaries and relationships must remain wide open because they cannot be narrower than the overflowing grace and love of God without misrepresenting what they are centrally concerned with.
Likewise, the Gospel (good news, let's not forget) is about God remaking relationships and people, restoring what has been broken, and refusing all that mars, harms and divides. It isn't about 'being religious'. It's about discovering what it really means to be human in a new and unrestricted way.
Quite a bit of what's at the core of the Gospel is something that has to be nurtured in intentional Christian community. It isn't something that you can expect to get from your local hospital, in the pub, down the shops, at work or at school. Nevertheless, those public spheres are places where Christians live alongside others, many of whom share elements of the values explicit or implicit in the Christian message - but perhaps sourced or framed in different ways.
So when it comes to taking public money to run or help run schools, for instance, the task is not to try to turn those community institutions into churches (church-building is our business!), it's to reflect in public practice the practical virtues we as Christians hold that can be shared and developed with others without trying to impose on them who we are, or vice versa. Something like that.
Therefore, it seems to me, it is possible to arrive at a 'transformational ethos' for a church-backed school which makes it more (rather than less) open to others. In today's meeting I'm hoping to spell that out in theological terms - that is, in terms that declare what it is about the God we worship that might lead us to behave very differently from a 'religious club'.
In a recent speech, my colleague Jonathan Bartley summed up the impact he'd like to see beautifully. He declared:
I have a dream that church schools would become the most inclusive, most loving, most tolerant, most restorative schools in the country. That they would be beacons of inclusion that welcome children with Special Education Needs, with the lowest rates of exclusion, that take the most children eligible for free school meals, that do not buy into the culture of league tables, and that foster co-operation rather than competition.
Now you may not like elements of that vision. That’s fine. Let’s discuss it. But let’s talk about the shape, form, and behaviour of schools, and let’s judge their ethos on that basis. Let’s not get bogged down in the false polarisation of “religious schools are good/ religious schools are bad”.
That last point is crucial. The "religious schools can do no wrong" versus "religious schools can do no right" lobbies are the ones who are blocking positive change and reform of the kind that the Accord Coalition advocates in public terms and that Ekklesia, among others, advocates in specifically Christian ones.
Let the conversation continue....
(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He is also a co-founder of the Accord Coalition and currently serves on its Steering Group.